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The Plight of Middle Managers

The demise of the corporate pecking order is a myth, says Stanford professor Harold J. Leavitt. Middle managers are the ones who bear the brunt when an organization pretends that everyone is equal. A book excerpt from Top Down.

Again and again, over the years, many of us have wished, and some of us have believed, that a great white knight would come galloping out of the smog to slay the hierarchical dragon. In the wake of World War II, for example, many of us expected that the tsunami of newly arriving knowledge workers would sweep hierarchies away. Knowledge workers, after all, added value with their brains. Old authoritarian methods might work on arms and legs, but you couldn't push brains around. We were wrong. Many things changed, but hierarchies remained.

Later, in the 1970s, some of us felt sure that the new information revolution would drive a stake into the hierarchy's heart. For in the brave new IT world, every employee could gain instant access to all the information necessary to make informed decisions. Ergo, information would no longer have to flow tortuously up the hierarchy and decisions distortedly back down. Wrong again!

Now, in this era of cyberspace and nano-speed, that theme is recurring. Given today's knowledge world—its cheap, boundary-less communication, its interconnected organizations—who needs hierarchies? Some writers seem convinced that modern information technology—the Internet and the Web—have already killed hierarchies.

Thus, Thomas Stewart in his broad-ranging 1997 book Intellectual Capital tells us "How Technology Destroyed the Hierarchy."7 And Stewart, it is worth pointing out, does not come at that end-of-hierarchies view from the usual, strictly humanistic posture. He is aware of what is called the "systemizing" perspective: a rational, analytic way of treating human organizations.

It's the managers in the middle who can most easily become entangled.

One must also ask another question: If networks are, in fact, the designs of the future, can we feel confident that they will do significantly better than hierarchies? We often fail to look down the road for the inevitable but unforeseen secondary and tertiary consequences of new "solutions" to today's problems—perhaps because we prefer not to face up to them in advance. As the great Eastern U.S. blackout of August 2003 made clear, interdependencies among a network of independent entities don't always prevent bad things from happening.8 Networks, too, are subject to the vagaries of their weakest links and their most manipulative members.

Could it be that we have been fighting the wrong war? That organizational nirvana does not lie in battling against human hierarchies, but rather in learning to modify and tame them, and in helping people learn how to work effectively and live meaningfully inside them? Perhaps it's time to stop trying to persuade managers and other organizational employees to behave as though they are not occupants of authoritarian hierarchies, when, in fact, that's exactly where they live. [...]

Some personal dilemmas of middle managerial life
Who must be aware of organizational power in all its forms? Who must integrate conflicting humanizing and systemizing forces? Who else but middle managers—the men and women ensconced on the rungs between the bottoms and the tops of big organizations' hierarchical ladders. It takes experience, a sense of self-worth, savvy, and skill to balance on these rungs, to maintain one's personal integrity and humanity and still help the organization get serious work done.

It's the managers in the middle who can most easily become entangled in the integrity/authority/power net. For example, at an intensive off-site sensitivity training workshop, we once had five levels of management (all male) from the same company together in the same face-to-face group. There were several first-line supervisors—ex-blue-collar guys who had come up from the ranks—along with a couple of plant superintendents, several higher-level department heads and on up to and including the CEO. The group had been arranged "diagonally," so as few direct reports as possible were in the same group. In a hierarchy, of course, it's impossible to follow that rule all the way up to the narrow top, so two VPs who reported directly to the CEO were in the group, too.

Initially, the group's agenda-less discussion stayed cool and safe. The participants talked about easy-to-agree-on subjects: current business problems and suggestions for solving them. During that phase, everybody got into the act—the CEO, division directors, department heads, and, to a lesser extent, the first-line supervisors. Gradually, though, the talk turned to touchier issues: recurrent foul-ups, alleged mistreatment of people, and cover-ups of serious managerial mistakes. As these more sensitive topics entered the discussion, the decibel level decreased. Those just below the CEO were among the first to drop into near silence, followed by the next level down and so on, until the meeting became pretty much a two-way talkfest, with first-line supervisors laying it on the line and the CEO responding. The others, sandwiched between the two ends, sat mostly silent, almost frozen in their seats.

I had a chance to talk with the CEO just after the session. He was delighted with the whole thing. He said something like this: "Did you notice how easily those first-line supers and I could communicate with each other? They're the salt of the earth. They're not afraid to say what they think. Those other guys, they're technical types, intellectuals. They cover their tails. That's why they shut up. If we're going to build a solid top-to-bottom team around here, they're the ones who need the real work."

Saying the wrong thing could easily have turned into a CLS—a career-limiting statement.

Was the CEO reading the situation correctly? I had to tell him I didn't think so. But he was certainly right about one thing. Those middle levels, especially the upper middles, were covering their tails—for good reason. I thought the middle folks had shut up because they were just plain scared by the presence of their close bosses, especially the CEO. If the in-betweens had argued with first-line supervisors, they would probably have been called to the boss's office the next morning. The first-line supervisors, however, didn't need to feel afraid. The CEO was too distant, too far up the hierarchy to scare them. The chief executive of a large organization wasn't likely to go after a veteran foreman, four levels down the hierarchy. Besides, if these old-timers pointed to things that were going wrong, who was likely to be held responsible? Certainly not the top boss! That was middle managers' territory.

As for the CEO, he was feeling heroic. He had shown himself to be one of the good old boys, duking it out with the real working folks. It was fun, like doffing his suit and tie and climbing into a gray (not pink!) jumpsuit—for one afternoon. But for those in between, saying the wrong thing could easily have turned into a CLS—a career-limiting statement.

The meeting must have been stressful for the middle managers. It spotlighted and dramatized that classic hierarchical dilemma—the dilemma of dependency—and some of the difficulties involved in speaking truth to power.

On speaking truth to the power
In a scene from Sophocles' Antigone, a sentry carries bad news to King Creon. The king is infuriated by what he hears and blames the sentry, who barely escapes with his life. Once safely out of Creon's presence, the terrified sentry mutters: "[O]ne thing's for sure: You won't catch me coming back again. It's a goddam miracle I got out of 'ere alive."11

Surely that sentry's plight resonates with many of us. Carrying bad news to powerful people can be dangerous. Indeed, it takes courage to disagree even modestly with those in authority. For most of us, though, and most of the time, saying what we think is not a central issue in our day-to-day working lives. It's an issue that flares up only once in a while, when some unusual challenge arises. Yet, rare though they may be, such events are likely to be critical points in the lives of hierarchies' middle managers. That's when those CLSs so often happen. Organizations have long memories, so even one or two such mistakes can have long-term effects.

When we find ourselves asking, "Do I dare say what I think?" too frequently, many of us are driven to make a choice: We must either speak the truth as we see it—and face the consequences—or modify our positions and perhaps rationalize until we believe that ours are the views that need adjustment. That's bad enough when the issues in question relate to things external to our basic values, such as marketing policies or manufacturing processes. But when our core beliefs are on the line, when our sense of honesty and integrity begins to nag at us, "adjustment" becomes personally costly and painful. Yet, if we fail to raise our voices at such moments, we become colluders in the erosion of our own moral fabric.

Examples, unfortunately, continue to be easy to find, even twenty-four centuries after Sophocles' play. Here's one from the [June 23, 2003] Wall Street Journal:

  • In 1996, [Ms. Betty Vinson] took a job as a midlevel accountant at a small long-distance company. Five years later, her solid career took a sudden turn in a very sorry direction. Today Ms. Vinson, 47 years old, is awaiting sentencing on conspiracy and securities fraud charges....
  • The long-distance company grew up to be telecom giant WorldCom Inc., which melted down last year in an $11 billion fraud, the biggest in corporate history.... Asked by her bosses there to make false accounting entries, Ms. Vinson balked—and then caved. Over the course of six quarters she continued to make the illegal entries to bolster WorldCom's profits at the request of her superiors. Each time she worried. Each time she hoped it was the last time…. Ms. Vinson's story is a cautionary tale…. When an employee's livelihood is on the line, it's tough to say no to a powerful boss. Ms. Vinson wasn't alone in these predicaments. In a report issued this month, investigators hired by the company's new board found that dozens of employees knew about the fraud at WorldCom but were afraid to speak out.12

Authoritarian hierarchies are good at playing that devil's game. Once inside hierarchy's walls, we may too easily be caught up in our institution's all-consuming social surroundings. We can begin to feel that our organizational world is the whole world. Hierarchies are great at seducing us into reshaping our reality into their reality. They can entice managers away from their authenticity with bonuses, golden parachutes, and the most seductive inducement of all, power. They can dress up avarice so that it's almost indistinguishable from generosity, and they can make cruelty look like kindness. Once managers are embedded in such environments, their integrity can easily evaporate.

In recent years, the dilemma has become a trilemma.

It takes savvy and ego strength for a manager, especially a novice, to cope with hierarchies' siren songs. Some can't do it. They give in.

They sacrifice their integrity to become feeble pawns of their hierarchies' wills. Others won't do it. They get out. They break away to find another way of life. Many, though, do thread their way through the moral maze. Some find it fairly easy because they are lucky enough to work in organizations that have high ethical standards. Others develop enough self-esteem and authoritative presence to cope with even the most tempting organizational carrots and the most threatening organizational sticks.

In recent years, the dilemma has become a trilemma. Managers can no longer safely count on guarantees from the organization's side. No matter how exemplary their performance or how loyal they may be, Mother Company may still abandon them, with little notice and often little remorse. So job insecurity has been added to the mix. Give in to the authority of the organization? Hold out for your own sense of what's right? Hope that your choices will help you hang on to your uncertain job?

In big hierarchies, the middle managerial highway is pitted with such psychological potholes. Despite valiant humanizing efforts, it will continue that way. Traveling that road requires a fine, continuous interplay among a triangle of forces: one's personal values, the real (not the professed) standards of the organization, and the need to keep the family's refrigerator full.

Fortunately, managers rarely find themselves forced to make a clean choice among these options. Most of the time it isn't a matter of standing up for one's beliefs or kowtowing to malevolent authority or just doing whatever it takes to keep one's job—although, as some whistle-blowers will attest, it can certainly come to that. Mostly managers live in a kind of middle world. With some notable exceptions, big hierarchies usually try to operate close to the moral standards we all share. They also try to reward loyalty. And managers, for their part, try—carefully—to communicate truth to upstairs power as well as to the downstairs people who depend on them. Managing is no longer the rough, tough, macho game it is still often pictured to be. It has become a delicate, sometimes dangerous, often subtle relational dance, perhaps more akin to courtship than to rugby.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpted from Top Down: Why Hierarchies are Here to Stay and How to Manage Them More Effectively by Harold J. Leavitt. Copyright 2005 by Harold J. Leavitt; all rights reserved.

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Harold J. Leavitt is author of Managerial Psychology, Corporate Pathfinders, and with co-author Jean Lipman-Blumen of Hot Groups. He is Kilpatrick Professor of Organizational Behavior Emeritus, the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University.


7. Thomas A. Stewart, Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 182.

8. See, for example, Albert-László Barabási, Linked: The New Science of Networks (New York: Perseus, 2002).

11. Sophocles, Antigone, revised and updated by Paul Roche (London: Meridian, 1996), 205.

12. Susan Pulliam, "Ordered to Commit Fraud, a Staffer Balked, Then Caved," Wall Street Journal, 23 June 2003, 1.